Zach Miller, John Carlson and the Value of the Chip-and-Release

SEATTLE WA - JANUARY 08: Tight end John Carlson #89 of the Seattle Seahawks celebrates his 11-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter against the New Orleans Saints during the 2011 NFC wild-card playoff game at Qwest Field on January 8 2011 in Seattle Washington. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

This story is kind of about two things: casting forward to the Superbowl, as I'm looking for points of interest in this snoozefest of a matchup, and furthering the discussion on the receiver depth of the Seattle Seahawks.

The Patriots team is of interest because it's such a weird team, cobbled together from different concepts, and flexing in and out of them as the situation calls for. Last time they played against the Giants, the Patriots mostly played 4-3 defense, but they dominated the championship game using mostly 3-4, and I expect them to roll out mostly 3-4 again. That brings up a point on defensive designations that...uh...I'll have to come back to next week.

I bring them up here to note something that pretty much everyone knows: when they last played the Giants, the Patriots were a 3-wide, passing offense. This time, the Giants offense is much more predicated on these 3-wide passing concepts, while the Patriots play a majority of their snaps out of two tight end sets, and have a much stronger, reliable running game, led by Lawfirm. In those concepts, this Patriots offense is fairly close to what I would guess Pete envisioned when he hired Jeremy Bates to be his offensive coordinator (but only in those specific aspects). And the Patriots showed what a monster truck of an offense this can be, when you have the personnel.

As Cosell discusses in his Superbowl pick post, the NFL often boils down to a simple numbers game. With the new model of tight end becoming a bigger factor in the NFL, many of them converted basketball players, it is tempting to view them as nothing more than wide receivers under another name, but that ignores their value as both blockers and receivers. To replace a single Gronkowski, you'd need both an extra blocker (tight end or extra offensive tackle) and a receiver. This was on full display during the AFC championship, where Gronkowski would effectively take his man out and then release into his route, even if that man was Terrell Suggs. That is essentially two jobs done by one player, and that shifts the balance on the field significantly. On top of that, these type of tight ends make it near impossible to read run or pass based on alignment, which is often too easy on the current incarnation of the Seahawks offense.

The Patriots don't have to worry that much about replacing Gronk as a receiver, they have options aplenty, but without him or if he's still significantly slowed down, they'll have a hard time slowing down the Giants front four pass rush without making significant receiving option sacrifices. That's huge.

Now, what does all of this have to do with the Seahawks? Bates loved two-tight end sets, but behind Carlson there wasn't all that much on our roster tight end wise, certainly not a group to match Gronkowski-Hernandez. We suffered from that during the Bears game, and regular theories are that this was a big factor in letting Bates go. I don't know if that's true, but it certainly makes some sense. Bevell, by comparison, is not a big two-tight end guy, certainly not as a function of the passing rather than running offense.

I still want to bring this up as an option of what the Seahawks "could or should" do this off-season. Our wide receiver group has come under some scrutiny after Sidney Rice confirmed that he is indeed an injury-prone player, and Mike Williams dropped off the face of the earth because Tarvaris doesn't work well with him. Many are suggesting we could/should spend our first round pick on a wide receiver. And if Blackmon falls to us (and 11-15 sounds like the right range to me), I wouldn't protest.

But at the same time it seems far from ideal to me: we've invested quite a lot in our receiver group and the group is quite young. Obviously, they're not all going to work out, but say Sidney Rice (25) and Doug Baldwin (23) are a young core, all you'd need is for one of Golden Tate (23), Kris Durham (23) or even Ricardo Lockette (25, yes, Lockette is older than you'd expect) to really work out, or alternately for more than one to be pretty good (because the need for a WR2 is inversely proportionate to overall WR depth), and those are decent odds. We're pretty close to being done with rebuilding, but to rise out of it, I'd say we do need significant upgrades in our defensive front seven and at quarterback, before we look back to wide receiver. The draft might not allow for that, in which case you could do worse than elite WR talent at spot 11 or 12, but it's not a position I'd target specifically.

I think a simpler option is available, which is: re-sign John Carlson. Carlson hasn't been discussed much as an impending free agent compared to Marshawn Lynch and Red Bryant, but this decision could be as important as any the Seahawks make this off-season. Our receiving group was not ideal following injuries, yet we often rolled out three-wide groups while Zach Miller stayed in purely to block as one of our primary passing options. When you consider where our offensive line was at, in development status and later with injuries, that makes sense, as well as the fact that Anthony McCoy and Cameron Morrah did not play as well as we could have hoped.

Coming into this next season, the offensive line should be much stronger, which should allow us to do more not just with Zach Miller, but with our tight ends in general. Re-signing John Carlson would give us a duo akin to (if inferior to) the Patriots group, with Miller filling the Gronkowski role and Carlson the Hernandez one. Like Gronk, Miller is much more of an inline blocker, while Carlson has technical weaknesses in this field much like Hernandez does, with both very capable seal blockers but less capable inline blockers. On of the specific things Pete Carroll noted as a need was a "touchdown maker", and I couldn't imagine a better touchdown machine than the combination of these towering 6'5 tight ends.

In the NFL today, you can't just look at your wide receivers when discussing your "receiving group". Upgrading the tight end group by putting Carlson back in and adding a good pass-catcher for your third-down running back option could be a significant upgrade to this passing game without even starting to worry about the WR2 position. Entering 2012, tight end is the cheapest non-ST position to apply a franchise tag to, at a piddling $5.9 million. Assuming we don't need it for anyone else (and I don't see why we would), that's a good option if nothing else is.

I'm not saying I think this is what Pete Carroll will do, and don't know how well it fits what Bevell wants to do. But consider the cost involved of this option compared to spending your first round pick on a wide receiver, consider what Carroll wants most is a touchdown maker, and consider that the option of trading Carlson never seemed to come up as our front office liked the idea of pairing up Carlson and Miller... I could certainly think of worse options than going back to a familiar face.

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